Fourteen-year-old Zarria Porter spends her days surrounded by fine works of art. On her way to dance and computer classes, she passes through a sun-drenched lobby showcasing Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Brooklyn Bridge,” Albert Bierstadt’s “In the Mountains,” and—her personal favorite—“Song of the Towers” by Aaron Douglas.
This is Zarria’s middle school. It is modeled after elite private prep schools and filled with high-quality reproductions of famous paintings from around the world. But Zarria is a student in Brownsville, Brooklyn, one of New York City’s poorest and most crime-ridden neighborhoods, and her school is a public charter.
Ascend Learning, a network of seven charter schools in Brooklyn, is going to great lengths to ensure students living in the world’s cultural capital aren’t deprived of art—as so many poor, minority kids in urban America are. Inside renovated buildings that could pass for high-end galleries, students are not only taking art and music classes, but teachers also incorporate art into academic subjects. School operators say this approach—using Pieter Bruegel’s “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” for example, to help fifth-graders learn about the myth of Icarus and Daedalus—makes complex literature accessible to struggling readers. And while they carefully monitored student readiness for this month’s high-stakes state exams, they refused to throw out their curriculum in favor of test prep. They point out that many students from neighborhoods like Brownsville get to college and flounder from culture shock. What good is a high score then?
Such conviction is rare in an age when public education has become synonymous with the annual tests whose results can singlehandedly determine the fates of teachers, administrators, and students alike. Amid budget cuts and long hours of drills in reading and math, the arts have been decimated in the many of the classrooms serving the nation’s neediest students. Advocates for arts education are hopeful that the Common Core education standards adopted by more than 40 states will soon change that, as the standards and new exams that go with them emphasize critical thinking and analytical skills, which they say go hand in hand with artistic expression.
The arts have widely acknowledged benefits for education: They help create positive school climates, give kids a reason to show up to class, and inspire creativity—a trait highly valued in the workforce.
The arts most often get short shrift in high-poverty schools under intense pressure to boost academic performance. But the Common Core standards mention the arts frequently: approximately 75 times, according to Sandra Ruppert, who directs the nonprofit Arts Education Partnership. Students are expected to analyze paintings, music, and theater and create their own works of art. “The pendulum might be swinging to the idea that maybe kids actually do need a well-balanced education,” Ruppert said.
Oh, amen. Testing is worse than useless, especially when it is practiced as thoroughly as it is in today's schools. We are raising people, not machines. We don't need to test them. We need to give them food for their brains and souls, and let them figure out who they are. That means more stories, more art, more crafts, more music, more play, more fun, more warmth, more sunshine, more love. It's the only way to make them thrive.